Money Aside, What Were They Thinking?

(By Daniel Acker -- Bloomberg News)
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 13, 2007

You wonder whether they were just broke or thought they were a bit smarter than everybody else. Wonder if you got close enough, could you detect small stains of guilt on their white collars? Wonder, had the buttons to their consciences come undone?

When he reached for ice cubes, did it bother him that money was in the freezer? Did it shame her that she had to turn an extra bedroom into a closet for all those clothes she bought with money intended for children? Was she ever struck by pangs of remorse as she allegedly stole millions while masterminding the largest theft from a local government ever uncovered in the Washington area? Did they purse their lips with a bit of disgrace as they drank from the Versace tea set? Did the tea go down easily? Did their houses stand straight? The ones they bought from crooked deeds?

With so many scams recently against the public trust, one wonders: What goes through the minds of workers who scam and steal and defraud the government of money that is not theirs?

* * *

On a recent morning, you slip into the back of a wood-paneled courtroom in U.S. District Court to witness the penitence of the captured. The defendant, Brenda Belton, has pleaded guilty to stealing from the school system by arranging illegal school payments and contracts for herself and friends. As the prosecutor tells the judge how Belton stole money that could have gone to underprivileged students, Belton sits at the defense table, her head held in her left hand. You notice a thin gold bracelet slide down her wrist.

When it's her turn to speak, she rises uneasily, puts on glasses and reads: "I did not start out trying to scheme. . . . What I did was wrong. I am so very, very sorry. I never intended to hurt the children of the District of Columbia."

"At one time I wanted to commit suicide because I thought I had nothing to live for," she says later. "I have realized I am not a worm in a rotten apple to be thrown away."

Before Belton takes her seat, Judge Ricardo M. Urbina asks the million-dollar question: "While you were pilfering this money . . . what were you thinking . . . knowing this was money being diverted from projects and children?"

For a moment, the question seems to push her off balance. Belton, who was chief executive of the D.C. school board's Office of Charter School Oversight and has a doctorate, seems bewildered. Then she begins the tale as if her life depends on it.

"This did not start as a scheme," she says. "It was a process. I was trying to get things to children. I did not see myself giving contracts to friends and family. I was trying to usurp what I thought was an entangled bureaucracy. One step led to another and I found myself having to lie and cover for things put out. . . . I don't know what was going through my mind. I'm not that person who said, 'Let me take things.' "

There is a heavy silence in the courtroom.

"All right," the judge finally says.

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